For as long as I can remember there has been a part of me that tenses up when I hear someone bear testimony that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is the only true church.
Even as a youth who never doubted the validity of the statement, hearing those words made me uncomfortable. What had I done in my life to merit membership in this one true Church? Why was I so special?
As I became older and was exposed to both secular and religious experience outside my own tradition I found myself becoming increasingly wary of this statement. Observing Catholic Mass, reading Surahs of the Quran, and participating in Samatha meditation has sometimes left me with a sense of holy envy.
I have experienced truth outside of my own tradition. My experience does not necessarily have to negate a belief that the LDS Church is the only true Church. Concepts such as the light of Christ enable a belief that other religious institutions and individuals have been touched by the divine and have a part of the truth. This is a common belief among Latter-Day Saints but is always followed with the injunction that the LDS Church has the fullness of the truth.
However, historic events and changing policy indicate that the Church does not contain a fullness of the truth. Further, statements from leaders have indicated that the Church does not have a monopoly on truth and that the Church is still learning and doctrine still unfolding. For example, Elder Bruce R. McConkie’s famous comment that followed the policy change for Priesthood ordination was to, “Forget everything that I have said, or what President Brigham Young or President George Q. Cannon or whomsoever has said in days past that is contrary to the present revelation. We spoke with a limited understanding and without the light and knowledge that now has come into the world. We get our truth and our light line upon line and precept upon precept. We have now had added a new flood of intelligence and light on this particular subject, and it erases all the darkness and all the views and all the thoughts of the past. They don’t matter any more.” (McConkie, Bruce R. “All Are Alike Unto God“) This quote explains that there was a lack of truth in the Church before the revelation.
A more recent sermon from President Uchtdorf stated “Sometimes we think of the Restoration of the gospel as something that is complete, already behind us—Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon, he received priesthood keys, the Church was organized. In reality, the Restoration is an ongoing process; we are living in it right now” (Uchtdorf, Dieter. “Are You Sleeping Through the Restoration?”). There are still truths and practices to be restored. Policies and teachings to be processed.
This should not be surprising. The idea that the Church can still learn new revealed truths was recognized almost since the beginning of the Church in one of our Articles of Faith:
“We believe all that God has revealed, all that He does now reveal, and we believe that He will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God.” (9)
So if other religions have truth and if our religion does not have all truth then how can our Church be the only true Church?
Perhaps the answer lies in either the organization or the ordinances present in the Church. The Church claims prophets and apostles and proper authority. Also, the Sacraments of the Church are distinct and viewed as ancient ritualistic covenants that are necessary for salvation. An argument could be made that these provide ample reason to claim the Church is the only true and living religious organization upon the face of the earth.
But this again is complicated. To demonstrate this I should go back to where the only true Church statement originates*. In the Doctrine and Covenants Section 1, the preface of the book, it reads:
“And also those to whom these commandments were given, might have power to lay the foundation of this church, and to bring it forth out of obscurity and out of darkness, the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth, with which I, the Lord, am well pleased, speaking unto the church collectively and not individually.” (v. 30)
The chapter heading provides us with the date for this revelation–November 1, 1831. Those who have done an in-depth study of Church History realize that this revelation was given while the structure of the Church was in its infancy. Many of the callings and leadership roles we find present today were missing at that time. Teachings such as the pre-existence and the three degrees of glory were either unknown or fuzzy. Temple ordinances were yet to be revealed and the idea of proxy work was unknown.
I believe there is an easy resolution to these dilemmas that is scripturally and doctrinally sound. I would like to provide another interpretation of Doctrine and Covenants 1:30. First, it is important to note who the section is addressed to–“Ye people of my church” (v.1). Remember this is talking about the Lord’s Church. This is significant and important context is added by another scripture. Christ’s Church is given a detailed description in the Book of Mormon:
“Behold there are save two churches only; the one is the church of the Lamb of God, and the other is the church of the devil; wherefore, whoso belongeth not to the church of the Lamb of God belongeth to that great church, which is the mother of abominations; and she is the whore of all the earth.” (1 Nephi 14:10)
Contrary to Bruce R. McConkie’s claims this verse is not talking about an institution. Someone who studies this textually will see that the Church of the Lamb is similar to Lehi’s people who go to the good fruit while the other is the Church of Mammon which concerns with appearance and fleeting material (this explanation of the Church of the Lamb is given immediately following Nephi’s vision of the tree).
As BH Roberts pointed out “‘The church of the devil’ here alluded to, I understand to mean not any particular church among men, or any one sect of religion, but something larger than that — something that includes within its boundaries all evil wherever it may be found; as well in schools of philosophy as Christian sects; as well in systems of ethics as in systems of religion.” (Roberts, Brigham H. Defense of the Faith and The Saints. Pg 30)
The boundaries of the church of the devil are not limited to an institution. In fact, even people who have a membership in the LDS Church are not immune from being a part of it. Another Book of Mormon verse reads:
“Wherefore, he that fighteth against Zion, both Jew and Gentile, both bond and free, both male and female, shall perish; for they are they who are the whore of all the earth; for they who are not for me are against me, saith our God.” (2 Nephi 10:16)
In BYU’s Roundtable Discussion on this verse Religion Professor Stan Johnson eloquently said, “In our modern terminology we might say those who fight against Zion both member and non-member. And to me membership isn’t going to save us, folks. I think that’s a pretty profound statement there. We’d better watch ourselves and I want to say this too…President Benson once said many outside the covenant are withheld temporarily from the fulness of the truth for a purpose. For a wise purpose**. To me, those who fight against Zion, both those in and out, are in trouble. And also I would say the reverse is true. I believe, and I think we all believe this, there are many outside of the covenant who are for the Lord. Who are doing the best they can. And I believe they also are not the whore of all the earth.” (Book of Mormon Discussion)
BH Roberts clarification of the church of the devil may give us clarification of the only true and living church of the Lamb. Roberts statement could be revised to say, “The church of the
devil’ Lamb here alluded to, I understand to mean not any particular church among men, or any one sect of religion, but something larger than that — something that includes within its boundaries all evil good wherever it may be found; as well in schools of philosophy as Christian sects; as well in systems of ethics as in systems of religion.”
As we read these scriptures these two questions are answered:
- Can there be people who are not part of the LDS Church who are part of the Church of the Lamb of God? Absolutely.
- Can there be Mormons who are not a part of the Church of the Lamb of God? Certainly.
In these verses it is clear to the reader that there are only two Churches. A small path and rod on one side of the river and a great and spacious building on the other side. One clings to Christian and Zionistic principle (love and charity) while the other clings to the carnal and survival of the fittest (lust and selfishness).
I want to conclude by explaining that this reading of Doctrine and Covenants 1:30 still allows for an exceptional place for the LDS Church. The LDS Church belongs inside the Church of the Lamb. The Sacraments and proxy work can still be claimed as necessary. The work and theology of the LDS Church can be true and vital and necessary for the work of salvation. While limiting the membership of the Church of the Lamb to just the membership of the LDS Church is not scriptural, the restoration can still be described as a historical and ongoing event that provides us with eternal truths, blessings, and saving ordinance.
* There is one other scripture that gives precedent to the only true Church mantra. When Joseph Smith asks the Lord which sect to join he is told none of them, “for they were all wrong; and the Personage who addressed me said that all their creeds were an abomination in his sight; that those professors were all corrupt; that: ‘they draw near to me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me, they teach for doctrines the commandments of men, having a form of godliness, but they deny the power thereof.’” First, I believe some of this language is specific to the small area Joseph lived (ie “those professors). But as noted above, none of these religions qualified as the Church of the Lamb. When Joseph says, “I have learned for myself that Presbytarianism is not true,” this is scripturally correct since Presbytarianism is not the Church of the Lamb. I do not think this detracts from the direct language and the above analysis of the Book of Mormon quotations.
** The Ezra Taft Benson quotation can be found here and is worth the read.
I empathize with your twinge about the “only true church” stuff – but I think this essay is more about what what you have always thought the doctrine is rather than what it actually is.
The doctrine is this: Truth is all over the place and Mormons don’t care how they get it. All true knowledge is good and comes from God regardless of the medium by which it arrives – whether from a prophet or a scientist or an artist or a philosopher. As Brigham Young put it (in a couple different places): “[e]very art and science known and studied by the children of men is comprised within the Gospel…No matter who has it…There is no truth but what belongs to the Gospel.”
Not only do we believe that truth comes through all kinds of mediums, God has actually commanded us to search out truth wherever it is found. As President Uchtdorf said in October 2009, quoting a scripture from the Doctrine and Covenants: “education is not merely a good idea—it’s a commandment. We are to learn ‘of things both in heaven and in the earth, and under the earth; things which have been, things which are, things which must shortly come to pass; things which are at home, things which are abroad.’” See DC 88:78-79.
I absolutely love that, for Mormons, searching out truth is synonymous with exercising faith in Jesus Christ. As Mormon taught, “there were divers ways that [God] did manifest things unto the children of men, which were good; and all things which are good cometh of Christ…and if ye will lay hold upon every good thing, and condemn it not, ye certainly will be a child of Christ.” See Moroni 7:19-24. In other words, the way we exercise faith in Jesus Christ is by finding anything that is good, and hanging on to it. To seek out truth, wherever it is found, is to become Christlike.
Notwithstanding the presence of this doctrine, members often – especially in areas where culture is dominated by members of the church – make the mistake of thinking that the fact that this is the only true and living church means that the church has a monopoly on truth. But the church has never claimed any such monopoly.
I think your reading of the churches discussed in Nephi’s vision is accurate: people who advance the cause of Zion belong to the church of the lamb, and those who fight against it belong to the church of the devil – regardless of membership in whatever. This reality is reflected in the fact that when Jesus returns, people of all kinds of faiths will continue to live on the earth during the millennium.
However, your reading of DC 1:30 is mistaken. The Lord acknowledges that the church is young and speaks of laying its foundation and bringing it our of obscurity, and specifically refers to “this” church. There is no question that He refers to the LDS church. The mistake would be to read the phrase “only true and living church” to mean that the LDS church is the only church with any truth in it, and that it has all of it. That is the opposite of the church’s actual doctrine. As indicated above, truth is everyone. And as you point out, church doctrine has always been that the restoration is ongoing.
That the LDS church is the only true and living church means it is God’s actual church. It is not simply a group of well-intentioned people who have taken it upon themselves to study and adhere to ancient texts. God Himself runs it, and it is the only church to which he has given his authority. It is the only church with a “Moses” leading the way, and the only church authorized to administer the plan of salvation.
Hey Nate thanks for your comment. I agree with a lot of what you are saying. I don’t think I was mistaken, though, on what I have thought the doctrine has been. I agree with you that the doctrine is that, “Mormonism is truth; and every man who embraces it feels himself at liberty to embrace every truth: consequently the shackles of superstition, bigotry, ignorance, and priestcraft, fall at once from his neck; and his eyes are opened to see the truth.”-JS
As I noted above, the “this” Church is the same as Christ saying “my” Church. We have a tradition and assumption that if Christ has ownership of one Church it is the LDS Church and that alone. Our interpretive communities play a key role in the way we read texts and our culture has insisted that the scripture be read a certain way. However, this seems like a myopic view. Every description of the Lord’s Church consists of verses like D&C 10:67, “Behold, this is my doctrine—whosoever repenteth and cometh unto me, the same is my church.”
I think my analysis of D&C 1:39 is fair. As Terryl Givens points out, the restoration has been an act of bringing forth truth out of obscurity and out of the wilderness–something that already existed. I personally believe the LDS Church has an integral part and a necessary place to help bring and continue to bring the Church out of the wilderness and maybe calling it the foundation of the Lord’s Church would be appropriate.
Still, the Lord’s Church is larger than we often say. That is the doctrine.
This blog post by Adam Miller seems applicable to my point though not in full agreement with it – http://timesandseasons.org/index.php/2014/10/the-body-of-christ/
Suit yourself on the DC 1:30 stuff. For decades, prophets have been publicly declaring that 1:30 refers to the LDS church. To the extent there was ever any wiggle room in the actual text, the years of consistent interpretation has eliminated it.
At some point, being a prophet, seer, and revelator means something. In this case, it means they are not simply part of an interpretive community generating myopic views of scripture that can’t survive our superior critical reading skills.
Just a sampling:
To me it seems similar to prophets, seers, and revelators concluding that the Book of Mormon geography was hemispheric. A close examination of the text itself does not support that view. What does the scriptural text say when we remove it from assumptions and bias?
“We don’t have a professional clergy–a paid ministry that gives official interpretation of the scriptures–as we’ve always said we don’t. There’s no office in the Church that qualifies the holder to give the official interpretation of the Church. We’re to read the scriptures for ourselves, as guided by the Spirit.”
Doctrine and Covenants 1:30 (a revelation given November 1, 1831) states that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is “the only true and living church. . . with which I, the Lord, am well pleased,”
If the Lord had said, “these are my only sheep. . . with whom I am well pleased”, would we think that they are his only sheep? Of course not! We would understand that He was well pleased with the sheep He was talking about.
Can we not see that the Lord is not saying there is no truth in other denominations, but that he is well pleased with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day saints?
Doctrine and Covenants 10:54-55 (a revelation given to Joseph Smith in the summer of 1828, more than a year and a half BEFORE the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was organized) states the following.
54 Now I do not say this to destroy my church, but I say this to build up my church;
55 Therefore, whosoever belongeth to my church need not fear, for such shall inherit the kingdom of heaven.
The church to which the Lord refers is the one that has for its members those who follow the Light of Christ within their hearts, no matter what religious affiliation they may or may not have. Even though the organization that Christ set up while on the earth had been corrupted, there are two churches only. There have always been people who were true to Christ and have sought to follow His Light. They are they who abhor evil and seek righteousness; who belong to Christ’s church which supersedes all denominations. They live Christ-like lives.
The Church in the latter-days which restores the Gospel of Christ to the earth; The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, itself is in the true Church of Christ. Members of our Church must ask themselves, “Is the Church of Christ in me? Am I for Christ? Do my actions show that I follow His teachings and promote His Ways? Am I ‘for Him’? Am I Christian?
Those who righteously follow the Light of Christ, even though they may not have ever been taught about Him or even know His Name, “need not fear, for such shall inherit the kingdom of heaven.”
Can we then turn around and say that Islam is just as true, and that witihin the Islamic paradigm they admit that other churches have truth as well and do well to bring truths wilth them to joint them in praising their God Allah and His prophet Mohammad? Or is it only throught Jesus Christ? Or are these liberal blogs so vague that scripture and the decrees of modern day prophets just don’t really mea anything anymore. I get it that you’re aware enough to discount the obviousness of the controversies, but yet not quite reaady to shelve the whole thing. Why? Is it really Jesus Christ that provides the first line of discrimiination between the belief structures? And if it is Jesus that supports that dillineatioin then what of his teachings will you embrace and which ones do you through away? Will you throw out the “being born of again of the water and the spirit” or is that one still in play? So if baptism is still in play what about the authority to baptise souls with, is it our Aaronic and Melchezedic priesthoods that are the authorities to act in God’s name? And if it is, doesn’t that make the Mormon church the only true and living church on the face of the Earth?
I think you want it both ways, or you don’t fully embrace the core teachings of the Mormon church. The core teaching do indeed teach and the logical trail follows that this is the only church that can save souls to dwell in the presence of God again, rendering anything else a failure to achieve the true heaven. Nobody is arguing whether other belief traditions have truth, in fact, that is a boring argument. But unless you have not been paying attention, this church makes specific truth claims about authority to act in God’s name, and Christ Himself specified that there are certain acts that must be performed to save the souls of man. I’m always should I say not surprised that otherwise intelligent people, especially the liberal/progressive authors on the blogs still miss the 2+2=4 message of the Gospel. I sit in GD class every week and I guarantee you that this is the message of the Gospel as opposed to our musings here over the pitellence of liberal philosophical attempts. Don’t get me wrong, I’m far left, and Atheistic in my thinking, but I do know what we teach, and what we believe, and it is far away from what was presented here. I know we want a touchyt feely reapproach, but the scriptural underpinnings will have to be changed for that to happen, otherwise we get to a positioin where scriptures, prophets, dogma mean nothing, which for many here, that’s already happened.
Sorry about the spelling as I was hustling out a reply on the phonne before my flight.